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Israeli attack on USS Liberty

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The USS Liberty was an American intelligence ship which was attacked in international waters near the Sinai Peninsula by Israeli aircraft and torpedo boats during the Six Day War between Israel and the Arab States. Thirty-four men died and 172 were wounded.

Surviving crew members, as well as several Western observers, assert that the attack was premeditated and deliberate: i.e., that Israel knew the ship was American.

Israel maintains that the incident was entirely due to error: i.e., Israeli forces misidentified the ship at various stages as a Russian spy ship providing intelligence to the Arabs, or as an Egyptian freighter.

The US and Israel exchanged diplomatic notes after several inquiries, and the US accepted an indemnity of $13 million.


The NSA intelligence ship USS Liberty was attacked on the boundary line of Sinai Peninsula's international waters north of El-Arish, by Israeli fighter planes and torpedo boats on June 8, 1967 during the Six-Day War. In all, 34 American servicemen were killed and 172 wounded in the attacks.

The Israelis claim that, assured by the United States that no U.S. ships were in the area, they wrongly identified the USS Liberty as a much smaller Egyptian vessel.

All crew members and several Western observers allege that the attack was made deliberately, and reject all these reports as incomplete. They claim a real investigation has never taken place, all previous work being incomplete, mentioning the incident in passing, and designed to exonerate Israel. The survivors claim further that there has been no full congressional hearing, a demand which would probably satisfy them. Various theories are presented at times as to why they claim that Israel carried out this action; one theory was that Israel was trying to get the U.S. involved in the conflict on Israel's side, by convincing the U.S. that Egypt was the aggressor. It is accepted by the majority of historians world-wide that these claims are unsubstantiated. A more detailed discussion follows.

Table of contents

Background USS Liberty (AGTR-5) was a 7725-ton vessel designated a Belmont-class technical research ship. Her keel was laid down in February 1945 as the civilian cargo ship Simmons Victory. She operated in commercial trade in the Pacific until 1958, when she was laid up in the National Defense Reserve Fleet[?]. Simmons Victory was acquired by the United States Navy in February 1963 for conversion to an auxiliary technical research ship. Renamed Liberty and classified AG-168 in June 1963, she was reclassified AGTR-5 in April 1964 and commissioned in December 1964. In February 1965, she steamed from the west coast to Norfolk, Virginia, where she was further outfitted to suit her for a mission of collecting and processing foreign communications and other electronic emissions of possible National defense interest.

Vessel specifications: Length 139 metres; Beam 18 metres: Draft 7 metres; Speed 16 kts; Crew 358; Power, steam turbine, 8,500 shp; Armament four machine guns.

In June 1965, Liberty began her first deployment, to waters off the west coast of Africa. She carried out several more operations during the next two years, and went to the Mediterranean in 1967. During the Six-Day War between Israel and the Arab nations, she was sent to collect electronic intelligence in the eastern Mediterranean.

During the day preceding the attack, the ship was flown over by several aircraft. Their exact number and type is disputed; some of them are said to be Nord Atlas "boxcars", a photograph presents a C-47 Dakota and yet other reports speak about Mirage III[?] jet fighters. At least some of those fly-bys were from a close range. Many Liberty crewmen have proffered testimony that one of the aircraft flew so close to Liberty that her propellers rattled the deck plating of the ship and her pilots waved to the crew of the Liberty and Liberty crewmen waved back.

Since the morning hours of June 8, 1967, the ship has been steaming from the coast of Israel proper westwards to the coast of Sinai, where the battle "action" was taking place. On the afternoon of that day the ship was steaming at about 5 knots on the boundary of international and coastal waters approximately 13 miles off the coast of the Sinai Peninsula near El-Arish. At about 2 p.m. the ship was attacked by several aircraft - most probably, a pair of Mirage IIIs carrying cannon and rockets and Dassault Mysteres[?] carrying napalm.

About 20 minutes after the attack of the aircraft, the ship was approached by three torpedo boats bearing Israeli flags and identification signs. The ship's captain reported that the torpedo boats were signalling the ship in Morse Code[?], but due to the smoke of the fire started by the earlier aircraft attack, he was unable to see what was being sent.

One of Libertys machine gun mounts opened fire on the torpedo boats (without receiving appropriate orders). This resulted in the torpedo boats' aproaching to within 500 yards of Liberty and launching two torpedoes (the 1982 IDF History Department report claims that 5 torpedoes were launched). Only one hit Liberty on the starboard side, forward of the superstructure, creating a great hole, and resulting in the majority of the casualties for the incident.

After a while (see below for the disputed details), the boats withdrew from the area. Then they have returned with an offer of help; it was refused by the American ship. About three hours after the attack, an American representative was notified about it. He then approached the ship on an Israeli helicopter, but he was neither able to land nor to establish communications with the crew and flew back.

Though severely damaged, Libertys crew kept her afloat, and she was able to leave the area under her own power. She was escorted to Malta by units of the U.S. Sixth Fleet and was there given interim repairs. After these were completed in July 1967, Liberty returned to the United States. She was decommissioned in June 1968 and struck from the Naval Vessel Register. Liberty was transferred to MARAD[?] in December 1970 and sold for scrap in 1973.

In all, 34 men were killed in the attacks and 172 wounded. Israel subsequently apologized for the incident, explaining that its air and naval forces had mistaken Liberty for a much smaller Egyptian Navy ship.

Points of controversy The events surrounding the attack (including very solid facts, such as its duration) are a subject of fierce controversy (disputed facts are marked as bullets).

  • Why is there controversy in the first place: Number one on the list of things controversal about Liberty is why is the attack controversial in the first place? If the attack has been the subject of some 10 US investigations why are there any questions remaining outstanding at all? Surely all of the items listed here are very basic and would be included in even a rudimentary investigation. Do you think, perhaps, if someone were to actually read the reports they claim were of the attack would find out that they weren't investigations of the attack at all?

  • Visibility of Ensign: The most vehemently debated point is the visibility of the large American flag that the ship was flying; Americans claimed that it was visible in the wind while the Israeli pilots claimed that they were either unable to notice it altogether or considered it an Egyptian diversion aimed to mislead the pursuers.

  • Israeli aircraft markings: American survivors of the attack have made the claim that the Israeli aircraft were unmarked; Israel never responded to that claim specifically although it is not certain to what extent the people on board the ship would be able to notice markings on the aircraft, if they were present. Everyday experience spotting low-flying jet aircraft indicates markings are next to impossible to be noted by the casual observer, even on solid ground and during a direct overflight; this difficulty would be likely to increase on a ship and in the rush of the attack.

  • Jamming: Additional point that Israel did not comment upon is the use of radio jamming; in the absence of reliable records it is only left to speculate whether jamming (of Navy tactical and international maritime distress frequencies) did take place, or did the deficiency in communications originate in the attack itself (i.e. loss of power and damage of antennas).

  • Probability of identification: Americans claim the closer fly-bys should have been sufficient for identification. Israel acknowledged that the ship had been identified as American and neutral the previous day; however it claims that at 11 a.m., the ship moved out of the status board. An hour later, when explosions were heard in El-Arish, Israel claims to have re-acquired the ship without being aware that it was the same one that was flown over the day before.

  • Effort for identification: the American crew claims the the attacking aircraft did not make identification runs over Liberty, but rather began to strafe immediately. One Israeli report claims several passes were made.

  • Speed of the vessel: According to Israeli accounts, they made (admittedly erroneous) measurements that indicated that the ship was steaming at 30 knots (a speed typical of war vessels).

  • Call for ID: Israel claims to have called the ship on radio several times without receiving an answer while the Americans deny ever receiving a call for identification.

  • Visual communications: Joe Meadors, then the signalman on bridge, states that
"Immediately prior to the torpedo attack I was on the Signal Bridge repeatedly sending 'USS Liberty US Navy Ship' by flashing light to the torpedo boats."

However the Israeli boats claim to have read only the signal "AA", which was exactly the signal dispatched by the Egyptian destroyer Ibrahim Al-Awal when it was engaged by the Israeli navy 11 years earlier. Meadors claims that he never sent "AA" (which would require him to identify himself as well); this disagreement may be settled by considering the fact that Liberty wasn't able to read the boats as well.

  • Israeli ships' actions after the torpedo hit: The American crew claims that after Liberty had been torpedoed, Israeli boats circled the ship shooting at descended (unmanned) life rafts and sailors on board the ship. Israelis claim that they've suddenly recognized the ship as American almost immediately after it was hit and ceased fire. The former point of view was expressed by many of the crew members, while the latter one is reinforced by the statement the ship's captain had given to the Navy Court several days after the attack.

  • Reports differ also regarding whether the Israeli boats offered help: The crew claims that the torpedo boats simply withdrew, while the captain and the Israeli crew report that help was offered; the captain stated had asked the Israeli boats to stay away by the means of signal flags.

  • It seems that at least two rescue attempts were launched from US aircraft carriers nearby; the reason why they did not reach their objective as well as details of communications between US forces in the area and the While House are generally unknown and only further complicate this enigmatic affair.

Subsequent inquiry Subsequent three Israeli reports have all concluded that the attack was conducted because of Liberty being confused with an Egyptian vessel, and failures of communications between Israel and the US. Those commissions are:

  1. Ram Ron Investigation
  2. Israeli Examining Judges Investigation
  3. IDF History Department Investigation

On December 17, 1987, the issue was officially closed by the exchange of diplomatical notes between the US and Israel. Israel also eventually paid nearly US $13 million in compensations to the families of the victims.

Controversy Israeli forces do admit that three crucial errors have been made, the first being the refreshing of the status board (nullifying the ship's classification as American), the second being the erroneous identification of the ship as an Egyptian vessel, and the third being the Israeli HQ not receiving advice from the returning aircraft regarding markings on the front of the hull (which would not be found on an Egyptian ship). As the general root of these problems, Israel sees the combined senses of alarm and tiredness experienced by the Israeli troops at that point of the war.

Israel denies any accusations that the attack was deliberate due to the following arguments:

  • The attacking aircraft used napalm and machine guns - a rather inconvenient armament for attacking a ship.
  • Liberty opened fire at the gunboats before they had.
  • Due to the aircraft attack, USS Liberty was covered with smoke and was unable to conduct visual communications in any way.
  • No adequate cause has been pointed out that would make Israel want to attack an American ship in spite of all the forthcoming complications that must have followed.

At least some of the survivors of Liberty have often claimed that the attack was premeditated, and they actively try to assert their claim. In particular, Jim Ennes, a junior officer on Libertys bridge at the time of the attack, has published a book named "Assault on the Liberty". The book was criticized extensively for being unilateral and relying on questionable evidence.

Currently Ennes and Joe Meadors, another survivor of the attack, run a web-site that as they claim was built "with support and encouragement from the USS Liberty Veterans Association"; Meadors stated that the classification of the attack as deliberate is the official policy of the Association, to which all known survivors belong. Survivors run several additional websites.

Several books and a BBC documentary try to prove that USS Liberty was attacked on purpose. They are allegedly backed in this position by at representatives of the US intelligence community. Critics claim that many of them include incorrect assumptions and a fuzzy system of conslusion making. As examples, they bring the claim that the ship was attacked to prevent the U.S. from knowing about the forthcoming attack in the Golan Heights (information already dispatched to the Americans), and applying a quote describing the execution of 5 Palestinian guerillas wearing Egyptian uniforms (an act allowed under rules of war[?]) to "prove" the mass murder of 150 Egyptians.

Israeli officials and Jewish organizations world-wide have complained that these materials are often used as a pretext for anti-Semitic declarations and acts. They claim that these reviews often do not give Israel the benefit of the doubt, turning this extremely ambiguous history into a circus for Israel-bashing. Meadors and Ennes have denied an anti-Semitic pretext in their work, and express sharp disapproval at the use of the USS Liberty incident in anti-Semitic contexts.

The survivors have kindly provided a letter of position providing their view of the attack. This letter is brought to you below:

Position of USS Liberty Veterans Association on the events of June 8th

Without changing anything the author wrote in his account we feel a clarification is in order.

At a little after 2pm in the afternoon of June 8, 1967 the USS Liberty was attacked by at least three unmarked Israeli Mirage aircraft. Those aircraft used rockets, cannon and machine gun fire to target the ship's communications and defensive capabilities. Each of the ship's 4 gun tubs and each of the ship's antenna mounts sustained a direct hit by either rocket or cannon fire.

After the Mirages had finished their attack we were hit by slower Mystere aircraft armed with napalm.

The aircraft were followed closely by three torpedo boats who fired five torpedoes at the ship. One struck the ship on our starboard side killing 25 men. The torpedo boats then slowly circled the ship while firing from close range at Liberty crewmen who ventured topside to help their wounded shipmates.

Some have argued that napalm is ineffective when used against a ship. Combine napalm with the slow circling of the Liberty by Israeli torpedo boats as they fire upon Liberty crewmen and the Israeli refusal to offer immediate aid upon cessation of hostilities and some have concluded that the intent of the attackers was to leave no survivors. Indeed, that is what would have happened had their scenario been carried out to its completion.

And, let's not forget their use of helo-borne assault troops.

Let me spend some time addressing the above claim that "Subsequent ten American commissions of inquiry and three Israeli ones have all concluded that the attack was conducted because of USS Liberty being confused with an Egyptian vessel, and failures of communications between Israel and the US."

The legal counsel to the US Navy Court of Inquiry has said publicly that the Court of Inquiry was a sham whose conclusions were dictated by Washington.

The President of the Court of Inquiry and his legal counsel concluded that the attack was deliberate but reported falsely that it was a tragic accident because they were ordered by Washington to report falsely and "officers follow orders" said the Counsel to the Court.

That report can be found in the July 26 issue of Navy Times and in follow-up issues.

Washington directed that the Court conclude that the attack was a tragic accident, despite the fact that the Court determined that it was deliberate. So the Court of Inquiry was a sham.

Of the ten US investigations cited, only the fraudulent US Navy Court of Inquiry bothered to interview survivors. The others either did not look into deliberateness at all -- examining peripheral issues such as the adequacy of communications and of command and control -- or were merely reports to their bosses which summarized the results of the fraudulent Court of Inquiry Report. So nine of those ten investigations were poisoned fruit of the poisoned tree, which was the first investigation.

One has to ask why is there controversy in the first place? If the attack has been the subject of some 10 US investigations why are there any questions remaining outstanding at all? Surely all of the questions and alleged points of controversy are very basic and would be included in even a rudimentary investigation. Do you think, perhaps, if someone were to actually read the reports they claim were of the attack would find out that they weren't investigations of the attack at all?

An addition to the recommended reading list is A History of Israel (http://www.palgrave.com/history/) by Ahron Bregman (ISBN 0333676319). The publisher tells readers that "There is a rare extract from a radio exchange between air control and Israeli pilots on the fourth day of the Six Day War, showing that the Israelis did realize that the ship they were bombing was the American USS Liberty, but still went on to attack it."

Joe Meadors
Vice President
USS Liberty Veterans Association (http://www.ussliberty.com)
Email: joe@ussliberty.com

See also



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